April 24, 2009

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Boot quickly with Linux
Open source finds a niche by starting fast
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

One complaint you’ll rarely hear from Windows and Mac users is that their computers boot up too darn fast. Many folks leave their computers on all the time, sucking up electricity, so they don’t have to wait when they want to quickly check e-mail. A better option comes in the form of alternative operating systems that boot up much more quickly.

Your simplest bet might be to buy pretty much anything new from Asus. A number of notebooks, desktops and motherboards the company sells come with Splashtop pre-loaded, either on a flash memory chip or the hard drive. You can also find it on one or two laptops from HP, Lenovo and LG. It includes a Web browser, music player, photo manager (not editor), and a chat program that’s interoperable with AOL, Yahoo!, ICQ, MSN, QQ and Windows Live instant messengers. www.splashtop.com

If buying a new machine isn’t in the budget, check out HyperSpace from Phoenix Technologies, a longtime maker of the bootstrapping BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) software running on many brands of motherboards. It focuses exclusively on Web-based applications that can run in its browser and claims a 30-percent reduction in power usage over Windows. You can download a 21-day free trial of their instant-on operating system, but beware: if you like it too much, you’ll be sucked into paying an annual subscription fee. It’s $59.95 a year or $149.95 for three years for HyperSpace Hybrid, which lets you switch between HyperSpace and Windows by pressing F4. HyperSpace Dual, which requires you to shut down one operating system to start the other, is $39.95 a year or $99.95 for three years. www.hyperspace.com

The really adventurous can check out the coreboot project, which is a BIOS replacement itself. Installing it requires compiling source code and knowing your hardware pretty intimately, so even though it’s free and open source, it’s not for everyone. Since it installs on flash memory on your motherboard, it’s only compatible with certain hardware. www.coreboot.org

On the other hand, another quick-boot installer runs within Windows and gives you a prompt at boot-up time, for you to choose between Windows and the lightweight Presto. It’s made by Xandros, a company known for its Linux products. On my HP Pavilion dv5t, Presto booted to a usable desktop in less than 20 seconds from the prompt, while Windows Vista took almost a minute. There’s a launch bar with icons for the Firefox browser, Skype, the Pidgin instant messenger client, a file manager and an application store, which shows you the programs already installed and links you to others for free. If you’re familiar with Linux in general, you’ll enjoy poking around Presto’s 400MB footprint, but it’s not all that easily configurable for the novice. As of April 13, Presto will cost $19.95. www.prestomypc.com

You can even download the same operating system running on many netbooks: Linpus Linux Lite. It’s a 700MB disc image download, but has good hardware support and plenty of applications in its tabbed interface. To install, you need to burn a CD and partition your hard drive. www.linpus.com

There are other small Linux distributions not specifically focusing on booting quickly, but they usually do so nonetheless. Puppy Linux (www.puppylinux.org) runs from a 100MB disc image, and Damn Small Linux (www.damnsmalllinux.org) is committed to never being larger than 50MB. Note that the John Andrews who created Damn Small Linux is not me, but I’m sure as a hard core Linux hacker he’s just as charming.